The hole world in his hands

Richard Wilson got to the Serpentine Gallery with an industrial borer before the builders did. Rose Jennings takes a peek through the round window
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The Independent Culture
If you want to get ahead, get a hole. Workmen know the score - 10 out of 10 if you can jam the traffic from here to Hangar Lane. Children know, or find out soon enough, when they post the door keys down the gap in the floorboards. Piercers and policemen, crack shots and crackpots know - and so do artists, if attendance at the Serpentine's new show is anything to go by.

Richard Wilson's Jamming gears marks the end of an era: the Serpentine is closing for renovations, and Wilson - who installed that beautiful finger-trailing oil slick at Saatchi's, who flung a greenhouse through a wall and sunk a billiard table into a floor - has been given the run for the last show. Pre-empting the builders, he's commandeered his own forklift trucks, industrial boring machines, and site huts: and in various combinations, and to ends that they were never, strictly speaking, designed for, he's set them to work.

What's it all about? It's about architecture: the idea that a building, no less than a page of text or a piece of clothing, is a made thing - and thus can be unmade, remade, made over. It's about flux and flow and disrespecting the conventions. It's about things getting snarled up before they can be sorted out.

That said, what everybody's really here to look into are the holes: the big one in the west-facing gallery, with the builders' hut upended into it; the porthole-like aperture punched through the bookshop bookshelves (Gombrich taking a direct hit, Irigiray suffering abrasions); the manhole- sized chunk taken out of the flags in the north gallery.

Why is art so fascinated by holes? Why are we so fascinated by holes? Is it about containment - or escape? A Mummy thing? Or a what-did-you- do-in-the-War-Daddy thing?

For some really epic holes you have to go back to the Earth Art movement of the late Sixties and early Seventies. This wasn't so much to do with questioning the gallery system as backing out of it altogether. For artists like Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer and Dennis Oppenheim out in the deserts of Utah and New Mexico, the big pay-off was space.

Heizer's Double Negative (1969) took the form of two cuts, 50 feet deep by 30 feet wide, in an escarpment in Southern Nevada. Nancy Holt's Utah Sun Tunnels (1973) were four concrete cylinders, nine feet in diameter, perforated with small holes - the mouths of the cylinders framing views into the desert, the holes casting starry light spots upon the interior. Dennis Oppenheim's conversion to earth as a sculptural material took place, as he described it, "in Oakland... when I cut a hole in a mountain".

Well, it couldn't happen here, could it? Or not now anyway. But in point of fact, even at that time and in that location, the artists came in for some stick from the environmentalists. "Earth Art, with very few exceptions, not only doesn't improve on its natural environment, it destroys it," Artweek wrote in the early Seventies. And when Robert Smithson - who in fact cared deeply about natural processes - made a work in Holland around a vast balanced rock, and then subsequently had thoughts about moving the stone, he was told that only the Dutch army could do such a thing.

What America scaled up, hole-wise, Europe scaled down again. Witness Self Burial - a piece made by British conceptualist Keith Arnatt. This (unintentionally) very funny series of photographs shows the artist digging himself into a hole. It was shown at MoMA in New York in 1970, and also broadcast on German television - two photos each day, no commentary, dropped into the normal daily programming. Sounds a riot.

Holes make us feel free, while at the same time remind us that we aren't. While America's right to roam is enshrined in the constitution, ours is not: we tiptoe; worry about closing the gate; fuss around "No Trespassing" signs. We want to be out there, but at the same time we need our artists to recognise how difficult this can sometimes be.

That said, there's difficult and there's difficult: where German artist Dieter Appelt, photographing himself naked in a snowy grave, presumably only had to shiver for the duration of the shoot, British performance artist Kerry Trengrove spent eight days tunnelling out of the Acme gallery in Covent Garden.

Sex and death and iconoclasm: might we link Lucio Fontana's slashed canvases - two fingers to dusty Old Italy - with a slightly baffling attempt to "housebreak" Rachel Whiteread's House? As Iain Sinclair described it in an essay on the sculpture, some anarchists apparently showed up with sledgehammers and drills "to break into the interior of an exhibit that had no interior". Had they succeeded, he concludes, "they would have reversed time and vanished forever".

It wasn't always culture that so possessed us. Hell was of course once imagined as a place rather than a state of mind - a trap, a hole. One of the most extraordinary drawings in the Louvre, accredited only to the School of Breughel, takes as its subject The Fall of the Damned.

Here the Other Place is represented as a kind of shallow lip, like a drain or a Hoover nozzle - a mouth clogged up with spined and clawed little things, half-animal, half-human. But is the hole sucking in or blowing out? The armadillo-like creature, with its claws planted squarely in the face of a child, could just as well be scrambling out as falling in. Another grips on to the lip like a flung cat grips on to a table edge.

For a contemporary re-working, you might go to the photographs of Richard Misrach. Since 1986 he's been shooting anti-landscapes in the deserts of the American South West. One of his most gruelling series, The Pit, shows dead cattle and horses dumped in shallow burial sites - animals that have died of unknown causes, probably from contamination of the groundwater by nuclear waste.

There seem to be an awful lot of them - some lightly blown over with sand, others, bloated, balloon-like, looking as if a gust of wind might lift them off the ground. In the contemporary scheme of things, earth is just earth, matter matter: no particular interest here in covering up for us, in pulling us under.

Mineshafts, tunnels, secret passages, vaults: we made them, and to some extent can't unmake them, shake them out of our psyche. But if any forward- looking museum is looking to make something of this, they ought to start marshalling their resources right now. A JCB, stolen from a building site, was recently tracked down by the London council department that owned it. They found it, eventually, in Egypt.

n Richard Wilson's 'Jamming gears' is at the Serpentine Gallery, London W2 to 15 Sept (0171-402 6075)